The Pooter: An Entomologist's Favorite Tool

Entomologists everywhere are pooting for science. That’s not a euphemism—they’re using the scientific tools known as “pooters,” and they’re pooting up a storm.

A pooter (named for its inventor, William Poos, for real) is also called an insect aspirator. It’s a low-tech device with a bug at one end, a scientist’s mouth at the other, and a tube or tubes in between. The bug collector aims one end of the tube at the bug and inhales sharply, trapping the minibeast in the tube.

Many entomologists make their own pooters, since they have the supplies on hand, but a basic pre-fab pooter from a lab-supply company only costs about $8. (Coincidentally, the hand-held analog fart-noise-maker calling itself “The Original Pooter” will run you $7.95, unless you want a two-pack.)

Pooters can take many forms. There’s the electric pooter, the surgical tube pooter, the vacuum pooter, and the classic pooter. There are suck-type pooters and blow-type pooters. All of these pooters ideally have one thing in common: a piece of mesh or muslin at the mouth end to prevent pooter users from swallowing their research subjects.

This works … most of the time.

“I am sure that most, if not all of us, have managed to end up with a mouthful of small insects,” entomologist Simon Leather, Ph.D., wrote on his blog. Pooters see a lot of use, he tells mental_floss, and can get worn out. “You tend to just get your pooter out and poot without checking to see if the muslin is still there,” he says. “Luckily, most of the things I poot up are small and harmless.”

Other pooting hazards include “pooter’s mouth”—dry mouth or allergies caused by a long day of inhaling dust and leaf litter—and aspirating insect eggs without realizing it.

In the 1950s, an entomologist named Paul D. Hurd reported a rather surprising souvenir from his latest collecting trip, which he discovered when when he looked in his handkerchief and saw not just boogers, but bugs:

Approximately 2 mo. after the completion of the past summer's work at Point Barrow I became ill. During the week following the onset of illness four major groups of insects … were passed alive from the left antrum of the sinus.

Because it’s cheap, portable, and precise, the pooter has become a favorite tool of entomologists and budding scientists around the world. There are several Australian “Make a Pooter!” lesson plans. One reminds the reader not to suck up stinging or poisonous insects. Another lesson plan suggests other fun activities like breeding mosquitoes, or making a pooter that can suck up tadpoles.

There are even pooting contests. Years before she discovered the peacock spiders known as Sparklemuffin and Skeletorus, researcher Madeline Girard took home first and second place in two consecutive Poot-Offs.

To the uninitiated, pooting may seem a little weird. But to the dedicated men and women of science who have made insects their living, it’s really a wonderful tool.

Dr. Leather keeps a pooter in his jacket pocket and a portable magnifying glass on a lanyard around his neck. “If you really want to understand the wonders of the world,” he says, “you’ve got to look at the small things.”

Today's Wine Glasses Are Almost Seven Times Larger Than They Were in 1700

Holiday party season (a.k.a. hangover season) is in full swing. While you likely have no one to blame but yourself for drinking that second (or third) pour at the office soiree, your glassware isn't doing you any favors—especially if you live in the UK. Vino vessels in England are nearly seven times larger today than they were in 1700, according to a new study spotted by Live Science. These findings were recently published in the English medical journal The BMJ.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge measured more than 400 wineglasses from the past three centuries to gauge whether glass size affects how much we drink. They dug deep into the history of parties past, perusing both the collections of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the Royal Household's assemblage of glassware (a new set is commissioned for each monarch). They also scoured a vintage catalog, a modern department store, and eBay for examples.

After measuring these cups, researchers concluded that the average wineglass in 1700 held just 2.2 fluid ounces. For comparison's sake, that's the size of a double shot at a bar. Glasses today hold an average of 15.2 fluid ounces, even though a standard single serving size of wine is just 5 ounces.

BMJ infographic detailing increases in wine glass size from 1700 to 2017
BMJ Publishing group Ltd.

Advances in technology and manufacturing are partly to blame for this increase, as is the wine industry. Marketing campaigns promoted the beverage as it increasingly became more affordable and available for purchase, which in turn prompted aficionados to opt for larger pours. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bigger-is-better mindset was also compounded by American drinking habits: Extra-large wineglasses became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, prompting overseas manufacturers to follow suit.

Wine consumption in both England and America has risen dramatically since the 1960s [PDF]. Cambridge researchers noted that their study doesn't necessarily prove that the rise of super-sized glassware has led to this increase. But their findings do fit a larger trend: previous studies have found that larger plate size can increase food consumption. This might be because they skew our sense of perception, making us think we're consuming less than we actually are. And in the case of wine, in particular, oversized glasses could also heighten our sensory enjoyment, as they might release more of the drink's aroma.

“We cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked,” the study's authors wrote. “Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking. Our observation of increasing size does, however, draw attention to wine glass size as an area to investigate further in the context of population health.”

[h/t Live Science]

Researchers Pore Over the Physics Behind the Layered Latte

The layered latte isn't the most widely known espresso drink on coffee-shop menus, but it is a scientific curiosity. Instead of a traditional latte, where steamed milk is poured into a shot (or several) of espresso, the layered latte is made by pouring the espresso into a glass of hot milk. The result is an Instagram-friendly drink that features a gradient of milky coffee colors from pure white on the bottom to dark brown on the top. The effect is odd enough that Princeton University researchers decided to explore the fluid dynamics that make it happen, as The New York Times reports.

In a new study in Nature Communications, Princeton engineering professor Howard Stone and his team explore just what creates the distinct horizontal layers pattern of layered latte. To find out, they injected warm, dyed water into a tank filled with warm salt water, mimicking the process of pouring low-density espresso into higher-density steamed milk.

Four different images of a latte forming layers over time
Xue et al., Nature Communications (2017)

According to the study, the layered look of the latte forms over the course of minutes, and can last for "tens of minutes, or even several hours" if the drink isn't stirred. When the espresso-like dyed water was injected into the salt brine, the downward jet of the dyed water floated up to the top of the tank, because the buoyant force of the low-density liquid encountering the higher-density brine forced it upward. The layers become more visible when the hot drink cools down.

The New York Times explains it succinctly:

When the liquids try to mix, layered patterns form as gradients in temperature cause a portion of the liquid to heat up, become lighter and rise, while another, denser portion sinks. This gives rise to convection cells that trap mixtures of similar densities within layers.

This structure can withstand gentle movement, such as a light stirring or sipping, and can stay stable for as long as a day or more. The layers don't disappear until the liquids cool down to room temperature.

But before you go trying to experiment with layering your own lattes, know that it can be trickier than the study—which refers to the process as "haphazardly pouring espresso into a glass of warm milk"—makes it sound. You may need to experiment several times with the speed and height of your pour and the ratio of espresso to milk before you get the look just right.

[h/t The New York Times]


More from mental floss studios